Plantation Touring

I’m on vacation again, this time in New Orleans on a ticket I booked with bonus frequent-flier miles I got for signing up for a credit card, because that’s about as complicated a hustle as I can run. I only had one real plan when I came down here, if you don’t count eating beignets and riding my bike along the Mississippi River, and that was a visit to the new Whitney Plantation, out in Wallace, Louisiana. I’ve been on only a couple of plantation tours, and they’re pretty terrible, if you’re not into nostalgia for the grand old days of slavery when white folks could comfortably drink mint juleps on the veranda while “servants” fanned the mosquitoes off you. I went on one tour expressly because people told me it wouldn’t be all “Gone With the Wind”—and I ended up having to hear all about how sure, slavery was terrible, but these plantation owners were pretty nice, all things considered. No thanks.

Whitney Plantation, though, is designed expressly to interpret slavery, on that particular plantation but also more generally in Louisiana and the deep South—not an easy task. Slavery’s got a long history in this country—it’s our founding contradiction—and there’s only so much you can tell in an hour and a half or so. That’s the easy problem. The harder part is that if we really talk about the depth of this founding violence, the part where the freedom and liberty of some was (is?) only possible because others are held in complete and total bondage (doesn’t matter how “nice” an owner is when what he owns is a human being), well, what will that require us to rethink about our present and future? How can a nation make amends for something that cannot ever be amenable? What would it mean to really—really—take the case for reparations seriously? And isn’t this a whole lot of weight to put on one tiny tour off I-10 West in rural Louisiana?

Of course it is—this is just one of the many places we have to start and keep telling these histories and stories, so I checked some of my expectations as I got in a car with several friends for the drive through the bayou to another side of the river.

We rolled up an hour later in torrential rains, the kind you get in southern coastal summers when the air has just had enough of all the humidity. We waited for a break that never came before running in to get our tickets and spend 20 minutes or so checking out the plantation’s timeline of slavery. Turns out until the middle of the 1400s when the Portuguese engineered the caravel, a ship that could operate in unfavorable winds, it was impossible to travel to West Africa from Europe by sea. That innovation kicked off a trans-Atlantic slave trade and more than 400 years of chattel slavery in the West. I was struck by the grand effect of this technological advancement. It’s like the cotton gin—without the invention of a machine to make separating the cotton from the boll so much easier, there wouldn’t have been the demand for labor on the cotton plantation that spurred the growth of slavery in the South. I paused to think about that one for a second—how whole new orders of justification for the enslavement and violent oppression arise as soon as it looks like there’s money to be made. I wondered, what are our technological advances doing to our own humanity? What part of our worldview has not caught up with the way some technological change is reshaping the world we live in? What are we not seeing right now?
And then it was time to join the tour guide outside the visitor center where we each grabbed an umbrella—they expect rain here—and started off to a church on the grounds. This church wasn’t part of the plantation, but there were churches on plantations, so it was deemed sort of historically accurate. Later in the tour we saw a jail from Gonzales, Louisiana, built in 1868—it wasn’t part of any slave plantation, because slavery ended in 1865. Except, of course, as punishment for a crime for which one has been duly convicted—yep, that’s right, the 13th Amendment has a loophole. So maybe this jail is part of the history slavery, if we understand Reconstruction and Jim Crow as continuations of, or at least contiguous with, slavery itself, but it’s not indigenous to this exact site. Some of the slave cabins were original, but others weren’t, and none of them were in the same places they were in the 1800s, because then they’d be too far for visitors to comfortably reach.

Other things were original, like the murals inside the main home for the owners of this plantation. Lots of pictures were snapped of these, and of the view from the second-story porch, picturesque in ways we are used to having The South pictured for us. We asked questions about the paint and the dishes, and so many questions about how sugar cane was harvested and the tools that were used—these facts were perhaps easier to hold onto, concrete and real, meat to a tour that is so much conjecture because the lives of enslaved people were not considered lives worth remembering, not to the official keepers of memory, anyway.

The tour ended at a memorial with dozens of granite slabs inscribed with the names of more than 100,000 enslaved people from Louisiana, gathered by historians and archivists from the records that do remain. These lives must be remembered, and this place is just one of the many places where people are trying to figure out how to hear the silences in history. I was overwhelmed by the names, just a small slice of the humanity whose blood still soaks the present. And then we got back in the car and headed back to New Orleans. New Orleans was the country’s largest slave market in the 19th century; today it has the highest incarceration rate in the world, blood, blood, everywhere. And here I am, on vacation, beignets and Sazeracs, reparations on my mind.